Donald Martiny is a fantastic painter whose works come as close to sculpture as I can imagine.  When I saw his website, I smiled because I knew I had to chat with him and I knew he’d agree to this interview.  Donald uses a LOT of paint.  How much?  And … what inspires such work?  Read our chat and find out…

“… I believe that if an artist adjusts or modifies their work to fit the current market in an effort to make the work more commercial or salable, that would by definition make them a commercial artist. My goal is to make fine art at the highest level. The market will shift, sales will come and go, but the art must be honest …”

MICHAEL: Hello Don, I love your work.  At first glance, it looks like broad sweeps of heavy paint or even plaster-like material hanging on walls. Obviously, you don't describe your work this way. How do you describe what you do? 

DONALD: Hello Michael, Thank you for inviting me to this interview. How do I describe what I do? I consider myself a painter. Some people who see my work want to call it sculpture because the works differ from traditional paintings in many ways; the way they hang a distance away from the wall, they are extremely textural and the forms are not square, rectangles or tondos. In fact, there is no ground, canvas or panel at all, just paint. But the works come from painting, from the history of painting and my personal exploration as a painter. I make my own paint and I either make brushes that I use or I paint with my hands. I have brushes that are six feet wide, and some of my paintings require as much as 20 gallons of paint. The paint is a special mix of polymers and pigment.

MICHAEL: Your works are really sculptural paintings.  How do they actually hold together? They're great and I'd hate to see one collapse.

DONALD: I make my paintings on the floor of my studio. The floor is coated with a plastic that resists the paint. I like working this way because there are essentially no boundaries for the paintings or at least no boarders that I am aware of while I am painting.

The gestures can be whatever they want to be, not confined or influenced by the shape of a canvas or ground. Once the paint dries, I lift it off of the floor and place it onto a sheet of aluminum. I trace the form and cut away the negative space from the aluminum.

I attach an aluminum cleat to the back of the aluminum to hold the painting a short distance away from the wall. I like the paintings to be independent and sovereign from the wall.

Finally I attach the painting to the aluminum backing.  You don’t see the aluminum when looking at the painting, but it provides a strong support for the paint. They are surprisingly light and remarkably durable.  

MICHAEL: Fantastic! I love that.  And so, is there a theme or message that runs throughout your body of work? What are you thinking or feeling while you're painting?  What's the end game?

DONALD: Painting is very complicated both to make and to view. I am trying to create and orchestrate experiences. I am trying to offer the viewer an intimate and direct experience when viewing my work.

I have moved away from using a traditional rectangular shaped ground because I didn’t like the historical reference to a door, window or mirror. I want the viewer to experience the painting in their own space, as if they are talking with someone face-to-face, rather than looking into another space.

So many images are viewed on TV, on computer screens or in print. I want a more immediate, intimate and visceral experience. At galleries or museums, it is common to see people view works from a distance, then they step up close to see the brushstrokes.  I believe they are trying to engage with the work in an intimate way. My large gestural paintings place the viewer inside the painting as opposed to small framed works where the viewer is outside the painting.

Additionally, I want to be present in the work.  That is why my work is so textural, unlike minimalist works like Donald Judd.  I often paint with my hands, so I am very present in my work.

MICHAEL: And so, what's the process of creation actually like for you?  Is it more emotional, intellectual or spiritual? What are you thinking while you're on the floor and painting?  Or are you even thinking?  Is it meditative?

DONALD: Definitely all three. When I am painting, I am very close to the materials and focused on what is in front of me. I doubt that a trumpet player is conscious of his fingers, but he/she is very conscious of the sound, mood, quality of the music while playing. Making a painting is a back and forth action of painting and looking. Looking is difficult. It all has to come together in the end. 

MICHAEL: I'm asking this because your work seems to have a rhythm and I'm wondering what generates it. Is your work musical at all to you?  Do you listen to music while you work?  Or do you need silence?  Is the process spiritual at all?

DONALD: Some days I listen to music, sometimes NPR, but I can go for weeks without listening to anything. I live in a very rural area. My studio and house are in the woods. I don’t see anything but trees and a pond where deer frolic and blue herron stop to drink.

Although I am not painting images of my surroundings, I am very aware of the changing light, colors, sounds and movement of nature around me. I am sure that influences my work. I think the best paintings are spiritual. Painting should offer an experience that is physical, intellectual, and spiritual.

MICHAEL: I find it interesting that your work is practically 3D, but you give it the 2D treatment.  Have you ever considered doing sculptural installations?

DONALD: Yes, I have a number of maquettes, prototypes and studies for sculptural works and installations sitting around my studio. I have been working on them for years, but have not shared them with anyone yet.  I think about them and look at them often. I’m just not ready to show them yet. Perhaps in a year or two. In fact, there are a number of directions that I am excited to explore, where I have made some works and put them aside to think about. Any one of them could keep me busy for years.

MICHAEL: Do you feel that photography is threatening painting at all?  I mean, in the past ten years alone, digital photography and video have exploded. Does this mean anything for painting? 

DONALD: Photographs and videos are for the most part images while paintings are objects. Paintings have texture, brush strokes and scale. That is why a photograph of a painting is never close to the experience of seeing the actual work. I am not making a qualitative comparison here, I am simply pointing out the differences. In my opinion they are significant.

Because images are easy to access, distribute, and manipulate, we are constantly looking at images on our phones, computers, magazines and books. Images can be dull or extraordinarily powerful and some represent fine art at a very high level. But experiencing an image is different from experiencing a painting and I don’t see one threatening the other.

Are exhibitions of photography, installations, video etc., taking over? I hope not. I believe there is a place for all of us - for all good work.

MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world and art market and how they function?  Famous, dead artists continue to pack exhibitions while the vast majority of emerging artists continue to strive and work hard just to get attention let alone shows and sales.

DONALD: I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the art market. I am very focused on creating the most exquisite artworks I can. I am tremendously grateful to the people who support my art practice. The market or sales are not part of the critical criteria I use to determine if one of my works is successful or not.

MICHAEL: Yes Don, but the reality is that in order to eat your work must sell. No?  All artists need sales and making money is a barometer. Thoughts?

DONALD: Making money is not necessarily a barometer of the quality of an artwork. The history of the art market has proven that.

I believe that if an artist adjusts or modifies their work to fit the current market in an effort to make the work more commercial or salable, that would by definition make them a commercial artist. My goal is to make fine art at the highest level. The market will shift, sales will come and go, but the art must be honest.

I understand your question. I have been lucky and currently earn my living from the sales of my work. But I am often asked if I would be willing to license images of my work for commercial use or to make paintings to match corporate colors and I have always declined. If I needed to, I would take a job doing something else to support myself and my art practice. The work needs to be above that.

MICHAEL: Finally Don, Is there anything that you think should be done to make art more accessible to everyday people? Or ... Is this even an issue? Is art accessible enough to people who want it?

DONALD: That is a great and complex question. It is something I think about a lot. Quality art is not nearly as accessible as it could be and a lot more can and should be done.

That said … the responsibility for art and cultural education lies with all of us, from grass roots organizations to corporate and institutional involvement. Keeping art vital, growing and interconnected to our lives should be a basic function and component of our society.

In a diverse society, all art cannot appeal to all people, nor should it be expected to do so. Art attracts attention and art can cause controversy, varied popular opinion is inevitable and it is healthy. Successful public art projects engage people in dialogue with the artwork, the community and the world.

One recent and excellent example of an initiative to make art more accessible are the grants awarded by the Getty Foundation that will enable a series of exhibitions and events in Southern California focused on Latino and Latin American-themed exhibitions. This is a topic that is relevant to the community and an under-represented and under-researched area of art history.

MICHAEL: Yes, it is.  Cool.  Thanks Don.  It’s been great chatting with you.

DONALD: Thank you Michael. Great questions! I appreciate the opportunity to share my ideas. It was a pleasure.

Check out Donald Martiny at